Trump nominees lose patience with lengthy vetting process

Candidates for top Trump administration jobs are increasingly frustrated by the high cost and huge time commitment required to meet the government’s ethics and conflict-of-interest rules, complicating White House efforts to fill hundreds of crucial posts.

At least a dozen people in line for top jobs in the Trump administration have dropped out, with many expressing irritation at requirements that they give up valuable assets to resolve perceived conflicts, according to lawyers and people closely tracking the nominations process.

“This is not the first administration that has had some nominees that have had challenges, but the difference in scale is quite large,” said Max Stier, the president of the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service, which has advised Trump’s team on nominations. “This administration has nominated many more people with much more complex financial holdings that have problems than past administrations.”

As tempers flare, White House officials and potential candidates for jobs are blaming the White House Office of Government Ethics, the agency responsible for reviewing nominees’ ethics paperwork to ensure it complies with legal requirements.

The White House remains furious with newly resigned OGE Director Walter Shaub, who stepped down after clashing with the administration publicly and privately for months.

“The White House has worked well with OGE career staff, but clashed with Walt Shaub who seemed more interested in creating false controversy for self-promotion than moving nominees though the process or working with the White House,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

But OGE officials and outside ethics experts dismiss the criticism, arguing the agency is simply doing its job. Shaub did not respond to requests for comment.

To date, the president has withdrawn five nominations: Todd Ricketts, who was tapped for deputy commerce secretary; Vincent Viola, who was nominated as secretary of the Army; Jim Donovan, the pick to serve as deputy treasury secretary; Andrew Puzder, Trump’s first choice for labor secretary; and James Clinger, the nominee to chair the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Others who had been announced, but not formally nominated, also pulled out: Mark Green, Trump’s second pick for Army secretary, and Philip Bilden, who the president tapped to be secretary of the Navy.

While the reasons for pulling out have varied, many of the nominees have cited the complicated process of meeting federal ethics rules.

“[A]fter an extensive review process, I have determined that I will not be able to satisfy the Office of Government Ethics requirements without undue disruption and materially adverse divestment of my family’s private financial interests,” Bilden said when he disclosed that he would withdraw.

Lawyers and other people tracking the nominations process said at least a half-dozen other not-yet-announced candidates for administration jobs have quietly dropped out behind the scenes.

Some potential nominees have spent as much as $200,000 on private lawyers to help detangle particularly complicated financial holdings, according to interviews with attorneys and people close to the candidates.

“You have to cut your losses at a certain point,” said one lawyer who works with prospective nominees.

The White House could be facing more problems in the coming weeks. Former Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Trump’s pick to lead the Export-Import Bank, is facing increasing pressure from business groups to withdraw, and he may lack the votes to win Senate approval.

Republican lobbyists have expressed frustration that the White House didn’t anticipate possible problems with Garrett’s nomination, and say it’s a symptomof an inadequate vetting operation. Garrett, a vocal critic of the bank, has come under fire from business groups who rely on the agency.

But much of the anger is being directed toward OGE.

One potential nominee mused privately to associates that he believed OGE is targeting the Trump White House and is unfairly holding them to the highest standards – a claim that lawyers who work with the agency called ridiculous.

“I’ve heard this from people, as senior as you can get, that OGE is out to get us,” said the lawyer who works with nominees. “They are very conspiratorial when it comes to all of these things. But that’s just not how it works in government.”

White House officials, including lawyers in the White House counsel’s office, have sometimes clashed with OGE leadership over nominees.

In the early months of the administration, the White House often announced nominees before they were vetted by OGE. But after embarrassing missteps, the White House began clearing the nominees through OGE first starting in April, sources said. That has further slowed the process.

Shaub has borne the brunt of the Trump administration’s frustrations. He has been outspoken since before Trump’s inauguration about his concerns over the administration’s compliance with ethics rules, a stance that his made him a target for the president himself.

Trump hasn’t yet nominated Shaub’s replacement, though White House officials said they hoped to find somebody quickly. But a new OGE director may not solve the tension between the White House and ethics officials, nor will the new pick be able to immediately fix potential nominees’ frustrations.

“This is written into statute. It’s not OGE that makes you go through this,” said one former government ethics lawyer, who declined to comment on the record because he didn’t want to become a target of the administration’s criticism. “It is burdensome, don’t get me wrong. But this administration isn’t being treated worse or better.

A current OGE official echoed those sentiments, adding that delays in moving nominees through the ethics process are often a result of incomplete paperwork that requires additional details.

“A lot of the time delay happens because we’re waiting on information,” the official said. “We’re not the cause of the delays. We’re getting them out faster than in the past.”

OGE is simply following the law, the official added: “We have very little control. The law is very specific in what it requests.”

According to date provided to POLITICO by OGE, the Trump administration had sent 405 nominee reports to the agency as of June 20th. It took about 27 days on average to clear nominees, as of June 28.

OGE’s staff of about 70 people has been spread thin since the election, officials familiar with the agency said.

Lobbyists and lawyers who have spoken to nominees are also frustrated with the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which, according to people familiar with the operation, has often been hamstrung by micromanagement from senior Trump advisers.

A Republican lobbyist who has spoken to several potential nominees said there’s widespread anger at the White House. “Presidential personnel is working very slowly,” the lobbyist said. “The process is very backlogged.”

Past presidents have also had nominees drop out. Barack Obama withdrew five nominations, George W. Bush pulled three and Bill Clinton yanked four within the first six months of their presidencies.

But experts tracking the issue say Trump’s stable of wealthy nominees drastically increases the likelihood of a bumpy review of the ethics reports that must be submitted by every nominee.

“The complexity of reports is always an issue. That requires a lot of back-and-forth,” the OGE official said. “We’ve had a high density of extremely complex reports.”

Trump, of course, is not the first president to tap wealthy nominees. Obama appointed billionaire Penny Pritzker as his commerce secretary, and White House lawyers worked for months to meet conflict of interest rules. What’s different this time is the sheer number of similarly complicated cases.

“You have a couple dozen Penny Pritzkers spread out across the agencies,” said a former Obama administration lawyer. “It’s not just Cabinet secretaries. It goes all the way down.”

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